Multilingual is the new homogeneous!

Teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in Geneva, Switzerland

Switzerland distinguishes itself from many countries with its four national languages (French, German, Italian, and Romanche), and dare I say, tongue-in-cheek, an unofficial fifth one (!!) if we add English to the equation. Nearly two-thirds are speakers of German, and the remaining third is split between French (over 20%), Italien (about 8%), Romanche (0.5%), and speakers of other languages.

The significance of these numbers and their distribution is that most people living in Switzerland speak and frequently use at least two languages, one of which is usually a national language. This is especially true in the city and canton of Geneva which house over 190 nationalities. In the town of Grand-Saconnex where most of our English courses for young learners take place, we can vouch for  about 125 nationalities. As you may imagine, this plurilingual landscape is an important factor in language teaching. Over 95% of our students, many as young as 4 years old, already speak two languages before they begin dabbling and babbling in English. In this post, I’d like to share some observations on our plurilingual, young learner EFL classrooms in a town close to the United Nations, other international organizations and multinationals.

  1. Kids often have got “an ear” for sounds and languages. This is logical as they have been exposed to two or more languages since birth. The advantage is that the baby’s ear, or rather its brain, remains receptive to a range of speech sounds which would not appear in a monolingual environment. In our school community, it is rare to find a child who has long-term listening difficulty in English. This also means there is less of a focus on pronunciation – it comes along naturally – and children feel less stigmatized.
  2. They like to make comparisons. Our students compare English and French (the local community’s language), and other languages they are learning at school, or at home. This process often leads them to engage in problem-solving sessions. This discovery process seems to have its own rules – for a teacher, this is fascinating. Sometimes, kids are fully aware of an issue (inversing nouns and adjectives for example, a red pen vs un stylo rouge); others systematically ask about conjugation (key concept in French grammar). Many need to see geographie and geography written down before realizing that these words look very similar.
  3. Some languages reinforce the acquisition of EFL, and vice-versa. Switzerland is ideal territory for a polyglot because English and our national languages are relatively complementary. English contains many German and French cognates which can be used to reinforce learning and build vocabulary all 5 languages. This means teachers can use many authentic examples from “real life”, and that language-learning continues directly or indirectly outside the classroom. We like that! By the way, did you know that skim milk in Switzerland is usually called “drink” as opposed to “lait écrémé”? This borrowing from English still makes me shudder, but it’s a fun connection to make in class….
  4. It is possible to reinforce local language skills through the study of English. A bilingual or trilingual child will theoretically know two or three times more vocabulary than a monolingual counterpart. However, language use and interaction determine the extent of a user’s vocabulary, and we need opportunities to actively use triple the number of words…. In teaching terms, we want to multiply interactions, that is, we want to give students as many opportunities to speak, practice and interact with the language. In a trilingual environment, not only is time is a precious commodity, but opportunities to use the language cannot be exactly the same.One consequence concerns mastery of basic vocabulary. For example, very young children know the names of food served at home or in specific contexts (grandparents’ or nanny’s cooking), but they may not be able to explain what was served at the school lunch if they have not encountered it previously in their native languages. Or they might recognize potatoes and quickly learn to say that in three languages, while knowing the name of a less common vegetable might be limited to one language. This is normal.Learners who feel comfortable in French (the local community’s language) benefit from occasional bilingual activities which help define all these languages in their supercharged brains! Let’s look at baby animal names: a child might say baby cat as opposed to kitten in all or any of the languages he or she speaks. Teaching specific names  such as kitten-chatton, puppy-chiot, bear cub-ourson, lion cub-lionceau, etc. gives students the means to expand their vocabulary in both languages.
  5. They can be fast learners. Students have a tendency to play with language, so if they initially don’t get a pattern right, they’re not afraid to try again. Although this could be described as typical of extroverted personalities, bilingual and trilingual kids already know that being corrected by a teacher or their peers does not mean that they have not been understood, or that they are “wrong”. It just means there is a right way to say it.
  6. They are conscious and proud of speaking several languages. I marvel at social evolution whenever I think about my grandparents who a century ago, gave up their native languages in order to integrate into a new society and culture. On the contrary, studies have shown maintaining a native language improves social integration. But what is the price of maintaining several languages? Should they be schooled in each language? In which contexts is each language spoken? Recent studies even suggest that our personalities and decision-making skills change depending on which language a bilingual or trilingual person uses. How do these children navigate a structured and organized Babel?
  7. What does mastering a language mean,really? When facing such talent, surely we must realize that mastery perhaps represents an ideal? Would a violin virtuoso master the cello, or the trombone? Bake a cake, or trade? What about swimming? And would a failure in one of those areas remove expertise from musical accomplishments? Of course not. But our expectations are not as clement when it comes to mastering a language. Although there is a shift towards valuing proper language use as an effective communication tool, mastering a language remains above all needs-based and personal.

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